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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The ‘peculiar institution’, and the two young women who live within in it, are the subjects of Sue Monk Kidd’s emotive new novel The Invention of Wings, which was inspired by a little-known historical figure, Sarah Grimke. Along with her sister Angelina, Sarah played a notable role in the abolitionist and feminist movements of the first decades of the nineteenth century, causing a schism with the women’s genteel, wealthy South Carolina family and society.

Poring through historical records, Kidd learned that at the age of 11 Sarah was given her own slave, 10-year-old Hetty, and that in Sarah’s account they became close. The historiography as it pertains to Hetty fades away after that, and The Invention of Wings is Kidd’s effort to reimagine her life and her relationship with Sarah and show how the tentacles of slavery, and the beliefs and mores that upheld it, wound themselves into the lives of all in the American South.

First, Kidd gives Hetty her ‘basket’ name, making her full moniker Hetty ‘Handful’ Grimke. A common convention among slaves was to nickname newborns based on the impression they made lying in their baskets, to register ownership of a child that legally was not theirs but a chattel of the estate. Hetty is born in one of Charleston’s grandest properties and destined to serve a populous family – Sarah had nine siblings – as one of 14 slaves in the household.

The introduction to Charlotte, Hetty’s mother, foreshadows the suffering Charlotte will endure later, as her desire for liberation and swelling defiance in the face of enslavement draw the wrath of Mrs Grimke. Even as a child, Hetty recognizes that her mother’s natural shrewdness compensates for her lack of schooling: “Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.”

Despite the sociopolitical chasm between them, Sarah and Hetty share common obstacles. Where Sarah breaks the law by teaching Hetty to read, she is herself permitted schooling, but cannot pursue her father’s career in law. It occurs to her that there is far less to distinguish her life from her slave’s than her elders would acknowledge, and to Hetty that though their relationship is partly transactional, they are each valuable in a deeper way. They must bear witness to one another’s lives where others will not.

While Hetty is inclined to accept her situation, knowing what happens to truculent or ill-performing slaves, it is Sarah who cannot reconcile her conscience to the only way of life she knows. Over three decades, Kidd patiently traces her path through the historical rise of abolitionism and the many roadblocks to social equality, among them organized religion and the Uncle Tom types who helped to support the status quo ante. Slaves attending a service at the black church are admonished by their reverend to be content with their lot, for it is mandated by scripture. Sarah’s initial encouragement by a gang of northern Quakers is overtaken by a similar message.

With the exception of one scene, Kidd opts not to depict many of the privations and base cruelties associated with the ownership of one group of people by another, favouring a spotlight on the two heroines, though as the novel progresses, the absurdity of slavery and the torturous justifications made for its existence become ever more apparent. Out of a series of oppressions with centuries of precedence Kidd has crafted that a tale that has a happier ending than those real people involved would have dared – or feared – to dream.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie J


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